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Development and the Future of Afghanistan

July 9, 2009


Before being fired by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, General David D. McKiernan served as commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Just before losing his command, McKiernan directed his forces “to ‘focus on governance, development and security concurrently’ because ‘success in Afghanistan will not come from the sole pursuit of a security line of operations by military forces.'” [“General’s Paper Sheds Light on Counterinsurgency,” Washington Post, 7 April 2009]. McKiernan understood that achieving success required him to help create hope for and a stake in a better future for the people of Afghanistan. To that end, he directed that troops shouldn’t waste their time clearing an area unless the Afghan government and its troops were in a position to hold the territory once it was cleared. He told his forces that “the Afghan people in a contested area must be made to feel that ‘they can resist insurgents without fear of consequence or retribution.’ That happens only “if the population believes GIRoA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] will outlast the insurgents and, in the longer term, offer the population greater prospects for security and prosperity.'” That’s what makes the current operation in one of Afghanistan’s most unstable areas so critical.

Just prior to General McKiernan issuing his guidance to his troops, a skeptical New York Times‘ columnist, David Brooks, visited Afghanistan. He came away still a bit skeptical, but also with the belief that the conflict there was winnable [“The Winnable War,” 26 March 2009]. Brooks wrote:

“I came to Afghanistan skeptical of American efforts to transform this country. Afghanistan is one of the poorest, least-educated and most-corrupt nations on earth. It is an infinitely complex and fractured society. It has powerful enemies in Pakistan, Iran and the drug networks working hard to foment chaos. The ground is littered with the ruins of great powers that tried to change this place. … Every element of my skepticism was reinforced during a six-day tour of the country. Yet the people who work here make an overwhelming case that Afghanistan can become a functional, terror-fighting society and that it is worth sending our sons and daughters into danger to achieve this.”

Brooks provided seven reasons why he thought things could get better in Afghanistan.

“In the first place, the Afghan people want what we want. They are, as Lord Byron put it, one of the few people in the region without an inferiority complex. … The Afghans are warm and welcoming. They detest the insurgents and root for American success. … Second, we’re already well through the screwing-up phase of our operation. At first, the Western nations underestimated the insurgency. They tried to centralize power in Kabul. They tried to fight a hodgepodge, multilateral war. Those and other errors have been exposed, and coalition forces are learning. … Third, we’ve got our priorities right. Armies love killing bad guys. Aid agencies love building schools. But the most important part of any aid effort is governance and law and order. It’s reforming the police, improving the courts, training local civil servants and building prisons. In Afghanistan, every Western agency is finally focused on this issue, from a Canadian reconstruction camp in Kandahar to the top U.S. general, David McKiernan. Fourth, the quality of Afghan leadership is improving. This is a relative thing. President Hamid Karzai is detested by much of the U.S. military. Some provincial governors are drug dealers on the side. But … reformers now lead the most important ministries and competent governors run key provinces. Fifth, the U.S. is finally taking this war seriously. … Sixth, Pakistan is finally on the agenda. For the past few years, the U.S. has let Pakistan get away with murder. … Finally, it is simply wrong to say that Afghanistan is a hopeless 14th-century basket case. This country had decent institutions before the Communist takeover. It hasn’t fallen into chaos, the way Iraq did, because it has a culture of communal discussion and a respect for village elders. The Afghans have embraced the democratic process with enthusiasm.”

Brooks concluded his piece by noting that the United States “has the capacity to use military and civilian power to promote democracy, nurture civil society and rebuild failed states.” He was pleased that it had chosen to do so rather than withdraw from global responsibilities. The change in U.S. policy that refocused efforts away from strictly kinetic military operations began with the Bush administration; but it has really taken hold with the Obama administration [“U.S. Pursues a New Way To Rebuild in Afghanistan,” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Washington Post, 19 June 2009]. Chandrasekaran begins his article with the story of a failed attempt to establish a large agricultural project in Afghanistan. “The water and soil were too salty to grow crops.” Yet, he reports, the Obama administration is committed to making the situation in Afghanistan better.

“Members of his national security team have concluded that the country requires not just more money and personnel for reconstruction but also a fundamental overhaul of the U.S. approach to development. They want to implement broad-based initiatives aimed at improving the lives of as many Afghans as possible, shifting away from an approach employed during the Bush presidency that focused on generating discrete ‘success stories’ and creating long-term economic sustainability through free-market reform.”

To be fair, early success stories are generally a good idea. They provide hope as well as examples of what can be accomplished. Obama’s national security team is also right, however. Ultimate success depends on taking a holistic approach to Afghanistan’s economy. There were some successes during the Bush years.

“Officials at USAID, which has spent almost $7.8 billion on Afghan reconstruction since 2001, maintain that their programs have been effective. They note that they have funded the construction of 1,600 miles of roads, the building or refurbishing of 680 schools and the training of thousands of civil servants. In the agricultural sector, the agency has pointed to a number of achievements: the transport of Afghan pomegranates to markets in Dubai, the opening of rural farm-supply stores and the restoration of pistachio orchards. ‘This program has had a remarkable success,’ said Bill Frej, the agency’s director in Kabul.”

The problem was that insurgents destroyed many projects shortly after they were completed. As a result, insurgents gained the upper hand by denying Afghanis any hope of better future. Trying to break this vicious build-and-destroy cycle is what caused McKiernan to issue his “clear and hold” policy. Security and development must proceed hand-in-hand. Chandrasekaran continues:

“Richard C. Holbrooke, Obama’s point man for Afghanistan policy, … intends to revamp the entire U.S. reconstruction effort, starting with agriculture aid and counternarcotics. He has decided to curtail campaigns to eradicate poppy crops — which he believes have driven poor farmers to support the Taliban — and restructure USAID’s alternative employment programs, which together have cost the U.S. government almost $3 billion since 2004. … Although farm projects lack the cachet of building schools and roads, Holbrooke and other administration officials believe that assisting Afghans in improving food production must be at the top of the U.S. reconstruction agenda. More than 80 percent of working-age males in the country are small-scale farmers. Helping them grow more food will improve the quality of their lives and — administration officials hope — reverse a sense of hopelessness that has contributed to Taliban recruitment.”

Chandrasekaran reports that the new U.S. policy will include an end-to-end assessment of Afghanistan’s agricultural sector and its implementation will involve public, private, and non-government partners.

“The new plan, according to officials involved in the process, will involve smaller contracts, more involvement of Afghan development organizations and more money funneled through the Afghan government. USAID’s private-sector development policies will be realigned, the officials said, to include a greater focus on helping farmers increase production. ‘They need the kind of soup-to-nuts agricultural support that Roosevelt gave the farmers during the Great Depression — roads, markets, irrigation, seeds, fertilizer, educational materials,’ Holbrooke said. ‘Afghans are smart farmers. … They just need the right kind of help from us.'”

Holbrooke is absolutely correct. Whenever I discuss Development-in-a-Box™ with leaders in emerging market countries, I stress the importance of the kind of holistic approach being discussed by Holbrooke. One of the things that almost everyone is agreed upon is that Afghanistan and the world would be better off if it could persuade farmers from growing opium poppies. Chandrasekaran reports that one man who wanted to do more than talk about getting farmers to raise different crops was Yosuf Mir, an Afghan American who lives in Fairfax County, Virginia. He approached a company working in Afghanistan called, Chemonics “with what he thought was a no-lose solution to wean thousands of farmers off poppy cultivation: cotton, a crop widely grown in southern Afghanistan until the Soviet invasion in 1979.”

“When he asked farmers why they were growing poppies instead, he said, ‘They told me, “What else can I do? We don’t have the seeds. We don’t have the fertilizer. We don’t have anyone to sell to. There’s nobody to give us credit except for the drug dealers.”‘”

The point made by the farmers is important. They need help helping themselves. It’s one reason that microfinance has become so important in many developing countries. Mir ran into all sorts of problems, however, trying to get his cotton growing project off the ground. The final nail in the coffin was the fact that in order to make a profit Afghan cotton farmers would need to be subsidized. As a result, Mir’s efforts went bust. Although his motives were good, development depends on establishing sustainable markets. An industry that must be subsidized is not sustainable and a company that cannot survive helps no one. An emerging market country needs to look for products in which they have some inherent comparative market advantage. Chandrasekaran reports that are individuals within USAID looking into what crops meet that criteria but they have stirred a hornet’s nest debate between people who want to focus on farmers and those that want to focus on markets.

“In late 2006, Chemonics … proposed setting up a commercial poultry operation that would employ women in 50 villages and produce as many as 45 million eggs a year, reducing the country’s reliance on imports from Pakistan and Iran. And they urged extending a project that had been set up under an earlier USAID contract to establish and restore vineyards. … Loren Stoddard, director of USAID’s Afghan agriculture and alternative-livelihoods programs, believed the contract should concentrate on promoting ‘buyer-led development.’ That meant sales and marketing activities, not field-level work to help farmers increase production. The grapevine project was killed. So, too, was the egg venture. Stoddard had worked as a produce salesman before joining USAID in 2002. Before arriving in Kabul in 2006, he spent four years with the agency in Guatemala, where he earned plaudits from his superiors for helping to facilitate business deals between local farmers and Wal-Mart. He wanted to do more of the same in Afghanistan. The key to resuscitating the economy, in his view, is for farmers to specialize not in wheat, which is a staple of the local diet, but in what the country grows best — and what buyers in other nations want to import: pomegranates, almonds, pistachios, raisins and fruits such as apricots that can be dried or turned into juice. He is fond of noting that Afghanistan was one of the world’s largest exporters of dried fruits and nuts before the Soviet invasion. But the first step in making that happen, he believes, is to line up purchasers, not focus on farmers. ‘Rich farmers sell first and then grow,’ Stoddard said in an interview. ‘Poor farmers grow first and then hope somebody will buy it.’ To implement his vision, Stoddard ordered Chemonics to use [USAID] contract money to hold a series of agriculture fairs that would give Afghan farmers a chance to display their wares to foreign buyers, to organize promotional shipments of pomegranates to supermarkets in the Persian Gulf region, and to establish ‘agribusiness brokerage centers’ to facilitate business deals.”

I believe Stoddard is on the right track. Using the same basic philosophy he is pursuing in Afghanistan, Enterra Solutions began its work in Kurdistan by establishing a business-to-business online trading exchange and a call center that could be used for both marketing and customer service. Businesses are only successful if they survive and they will only survive if they make a profit. In late June, the Obama administration told U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan that the primary focus in Afghanistan had to be its economy [“Key in Afghanistan: Economy, Not Military,” by Bob Woodward, Washington Post, 1 July 2009].

“National security adviser James L. Jones told U.S. military commanders … that the Obama administration wants to hold troop levels here flat for now, and focus instead on carrying out the previously approved strategy of increased economic development, improved governance and participation by the Afghan military and civilians in the conflict.”

General McKiernan may be gone, but the guidance he provided remains sound. Woodward continues:

“Jones said repeatedly on this trip that the new strategy has three legs, all of which he said had to be dramatically improved: security; economic development and reconstruction; and governance by the Afghans under the rule of law.”

No one believes the path ahead in Afghanistan is going to be easy. There are political obstacles as well as security challenges. But the focus of efforts there is correct. The new U.S. strategy provides the Afghan people with the best chance to make a better world for themselves.

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